The Current

Trump 'the wrong man for the job,' says veteran journalist Bob Woodward

Veteran journalist Bob Woodward says he didn't report U.S. President Donald Trump's remarks about the severity of COVID-19 sooner, because he didn't have the full timeline of what Trump knew, and when he knew it.

U.S. president 'does not understand his job,' Woodward says in exclusive Canadian interview

Journalist Bob Woodward in Montreal in 2019. In February and March recordings for Woodward's new book, U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged that he knew how deadly the novel coronavirus was, but played it down because he did not want to create a panic. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press; Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

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Over months of interviews with U.S. President Donald Trump, veteran journalist Bob Woodward says he has become convinced by "overwhelming evidence" that "Trump is the wrong man for the job."

"We have a president who does not understand his responsibility, does not understand his job," Woodward told The Current's Matt Galloway, in his only Canadian broadcast interview about his new book, Rage.

"We are in the middle of a pandemic and he's all over the lot. He's confused everyone, even his own supporters," said Woodward, associate editor of The Washington Post.

Such a direct comment is unusual for Woodward, who was part of the team that uncovered the Watergate scandal, leading to the eventual resignation of former U.S. President Richard Nixon. 

"Ben Bradlee was the editor of The Post during Watergate. I learned from Ben: report the facts, don't get into name-calling one way or another," he said.

Woodward has face criticism for not releasing the recordings of Trump — acknowledging the seriousness of the virus — sooner. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But he said that after 19 interviews with Trump conducted over 10 months, he felt compelled to write his assessment of the current president in an epilogue to Rage. He then showed the section to his wife and editors.

"They said: 'Well, you're writing a book about truth. And that's what you feel is the truth, based on evidence," he recalled.

"'You can't leave that out of the book. You have an obligation to say that.'"

Why did Trump talk to Woodward?

Recordings of Woodward's interviews with Trump were released by The Washington Post and CNN in early September. In the taped conversations, the president indicated he understood the severity of the virus in the early days of the pandemic.

In an interview on Feb. 7, Trump told Woodward that the virus "goes through the air," and was "more deadly than even your strenuous flus."

Hear audio excerpts from Bob Woodward's interviews with Trump

1 year ago
Duration 1:50
Clips seem to show the U.S. president knew more about COVID-19 than he revealed to the public in the early days of the pandemic. 1:50

Publicly that month, Trump repeatedly told the public that the U.S. was in control of the outbreak, at one point telling a Feb. 28 South Carolina rally that the coronavirus is "[the Democrats'] new hoax."

On March 19, roughly a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and a state of emergency was declared in the U.S., Trump told Woodward that he "wanted to always play it down."

"I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic," he said.

Woodward's new book follows his 2018 book Fear, in which he concluded that there was "a nervous breakdown of the executive branch in America."

At the time, Trump denounced Fear as "fiction, pure fiction," but he was still willing to talk to Woodward for the follow-up book.

"I think he knew I would listen," Woodward said. "I let him have his say; that was my responsibility as a reporter."

He added that he also had a responsibility to put Trump's words and actions in context.

"The context is that 200,000 people have died and he could have averted some of it," he said. "The big problem is this is a moving train. The pandemic may get worse."

Fauci explains why the U.S. is not defeating coronavirus

1 year ago
Duration 1:32
In an exchange with Rep. Jamie Raskin at a congressional hearing, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said U.S. states have not followed a unified approach to bringing COVID-19 under control. 1:32

Criticism for not releasing tapes sooner

Woodward has faced criticism for not reporting Trump's remarks sooner, but said he didn't have the full timeline of what Trump knew, and when he knew it.

"You can't write about something you don't know about, unfortunately," he said.

Woodward said it was only in May that he discovered Trump had been briefed about the severity of the approaching pandemic in a classified Jan. 28 meeting. At that briefing, Trump's national security adviser Robert O' Brien warned the virus would be the biggest national security threat to Trump's presidency, Woodward said. 

But when they spoke in March, he thought Trump was reacting to new information from China. 

"I'm in this question of 'Gee, I know what the president has told me — he's talking about China!' because he had just talked to President Xi [Jinping] the night before, and they had talked about the virus," Woodward told Galloway.

"And I spent months trying to understand what Trump and Xi had talked about." 

Woodward said he spent weeks trying to figure out "What did the president know? When did he know it? And how did he know?"

"And I kept digging at that, and finally in May got the answer."

On May 6, Woodward asked Trump if he remembered O'Brien's warning.

"Trump said: 'No, but I know he said that,'" Woodward remembers.

By then, 75,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and "everyone knew that it was something that could be transmitted through the air, transmitted by people who didn't show symptoms," Woodward said.

"So there was no story to run. I wanted to make sure I could put all this together in a book," he said. 

The U.S.'s COVID death toll surpassed 200,000 on Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Trump denies downplaying coronavirus, insists again it will disappear

1 year ago
Duration 0:46
At an ABC News town hall, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed a coronavirus vaccine is just three to four weeks away. He also claimed that he never downplayed the virus publicly, despite evidence to the contrary. 0:46

Asked about the comments during a White House press conference on Sept. 9, Trump said he didn't want people to be frightened, but instead wanted to show confidence and strength as a nation.

Following the release of the tape, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump did not intentionally mislead Americans about the severity of the coronavirus epidemic.

"The president never downplayed the virus," she said. "The president displayed calm."

Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden said that Trump had committed "a life-and-death betrayal of the American people," and was "unfit for this job as a consequence."

Trump 'an advocate for chaos'

Woodward also said Trump displayed a failure "to understand the people he leads." 

"We know the people in this country, when they're told the truth, rally around together," he said, citing the attacks on Pearl Harbour and the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

"The president at this top secret meeting asked questions, was fully informed, and then instead of telling the public he chose denial and a failure to do his duty as president to protect the country and to tell the truth to the country." 

Joe Biden blasts Trump over COVID-19 interviews

1 year ago
Duration 1:24
Audio excerpts of U.S. president Donald Trump discussing the coronavirus pandemic were released to coincide with the launch of journalist Bob Woodward's book about Trump entitled Rage. 1:24

Woodward said the publication of his book shows that free speech is still protected in the U.S.

"He has not sent the attorney general or the FBI or people to raid my house and steal my tape recordings and documents and put me in jail, and say I'm guilty of something," he said.

"The democracy is functioning; the leadership is what's failed."

But he said he fears for his country because Trump has "launched a full-scale attack on his own election process," in effect becoming "an advocate for chaos."

Recent attacks on mail-in ballots are "an extension of the self-centredness that he's practised in his presidency," he said.

"He's saying: 'Oh, we can't trust these ballots, we're not going to know after the election who really won, and there's all kinds of fraud,'" he said. 

With just weeks to the Nov. 3 election, Woodward said "people better put on their seatbelts and their shoulder harnesses, and sit in a steady chair." 

"We are going into a moment in American history that makes me shudder."

Written by Padraig Moran, with files from Thomson Reuters. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. 

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